It’s hard to imagine anywhere in Gwinnett County with a small town feeling.
An interstate runs through the middle of the county. It’s home to the state’s largest mall and there are nearly a million people who live in Gwinnett.
But on the east side of the county, not far from the Barrow County border, sits the town of Dacula.
It’s a place where high school football is the life blood. On a Friday night in the fall, everyone is at Barron Field to watch the navy and gold play.
It’s a place built heavily on tradition and pride. It’s all the things new head football coach Tommy Jones wanted to be a part of when he accepted the job in February.
“That’s one of the things that makes Dacula an attractive job. You have Gwinnett County and a big-time football atmosphere, but you’ve also got a small town feel that’s kept a community sense about it through all the changes,” Jones said. “Gwinnett County has gotten bigger and bigger over the years, but Dacula still managed to keep its community feel to it.”
Jones is well aware of his surroundings in Gwinnett County. He grew up in Snellville, graduating from Brookwood in 1991. He helped establish the program as a player, going 42-8 during his four-year career before signing a football scholarship with Furman University.
Across the county in Dacula, the Falcons were on a similar run in Class A by going 46-7. It was enough to catch Jones’ eye.
“I was very aware of Dacula and their success and their tradition,” Jones recalled.
At the time Jones never imagined it would end up being the home of his first coaching job out of college as an assistant under Kevin Maloof in 2000 and 2001.
“When I worked here the first time, I fell in love with Dacula,” Jones said. “The opportunity to come back and be the head coach was too much to pass up.”
After stops at Oconee County and South Gwinnett, Jones became the head coach at Lumpkin County. The Dahlonega school had that small town feel like Dacula. It was a place he imagined raising his two daughters Avery and Sydney with his wife Cory.
Jones was 27-43 in his seven seasons at Lumpkin County. The Indians went from 0-10 his first season in Class AAA to winning seasons in 2010 and 2011.
Despite being 50 miles north of Gwinnett, Jones still followed Gwinnett County football. Especially his alma mater Brookwood, where his father Tom has coached the offensive line for more than 20 years.
“You always keep an eye on Gwinnett County football. No. 1 it’s a big part of my past, it’s where my roots and foundation in football are. No. 2 it’s the heartbeat of football for the state of Georgia,” Jones said. “If you follow high school football or you’re a high school fan, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Camden County, Valdosta or Lumpkin County, you’re going to know what’s going on in Gwinnett.”
Now Jones is in the middle of the hotbed of Georgia football, coaching at Dacula. A place where you can get that small town feeling like Lumpkin County, but play against the best teams in the state on a weekly basis.
“It’s been exciting being back in Gwinnett County and at Dacula again,” Jones said. “This is an outstanding community. There’s great people in Dacula. A lot has changed in the 12 years since I’ve been here, but there’s probably even more that’s just the same. It starts with the community. I’m super excited to be back at Dacula.”
That enthusiasm comes from being in a county that has produced the last three state champions in the highest classification, including region foes Brookwood and Grayson in 2010 and 2011.
“It’s definitely exciting. At the same time you’re apprehensive, too,” Jones said. “But if you’re competitive and you’re red blooded and you’re excited about coaching in football, I think Gwinnett County is where you want to be. It’s where the best football is played. There’s no doubt about it.”
Jones is the third head coach in four years for Dacula. That’s a rarity at the school that thrives on longevity. He replaces Jared Zito, who resigned after two seasons in November following a 1-9 season. Prior to Zito, Maloof was Dacula’s head coach for 20 years and Mike Strickland held the position for seven years.
“Dacula has so much tradition. When you think of Dacula football, you think of tradition, kids that give tremendous effort, you think of blue collar work habits and that has never changed with Dacula,” Jones said.
Jones wants to re-establish that culture at Dacula, which is coming off its worst season in more than 25 years.
The program had roughly 85 players 10th through 12th grade out for spring football and about 45 freshmen. Those numbers are on par from recent years, which has seen the school district shrink with the opening of nearby schools Mill Creek, Mountain View and Archer.
“We make it our goal to get better every single day,” Jones said. “We’re going to let tomorrow take care of itself. We’re going to compete, practice, work hard and do what we need to do every day and that will give us the opportunity to take another step. Right now it’s one day at a time.”
Jones kept four coaches from the previous staff and brought in three new coaches. Clint Jenkins, who was the defensive backs coach last season, is now the defensive coordinator and will run a 4-3 formation. Former North Forsyth assistant coach Brandon Worley is now the offensive coordinator and is directing the new multiple I formation.
“Any time you have a new staff and you have a new scheme offensively and defensively, there’s going to be a learning curve and you feel like you’re fighting from behind to catch up,” Jones said. “That’s where we are right now. We feel like we’re fighting right now to get on the playing field.”
Jones will make his head coaching debut with Dacula on Aug. 30 when the Falcons host neighborhood rival Mill Creek. It has quickly become one of the county’s most exciting rivalries in recent years.
Then there’s the homecoming game for Jones when he’ll face his alma mater Brookwood, where his father Tom and brother Philip coach. It’s a game Jones’ mother Linda would have loved to see, but she passed away in December.
“I know we play Mill Creek first, but I think you’re probably referring to the Brookwood game coming down the road,” Jones said. “That’s going to be a real emotional night with my dad and brother both on the other sideline. Even more in particular with the loss of my mom and how excited she would have been about that night. It’s going to be an emotional night, but you only have eight region games to play you better make the most out of every one.”
Jones hasn’t put any expectations on this year’s team, or at least not publicly. This is a program that’s two years removed from reaching the state quarterfinals. The Falcons graduated their leading rusher, leading receiver and leading passer, so there will be some major holes to fill in the lineup. But it’s a challenge Jones has embraced.
“I’m excited to be back in the Dacula community,” Jones said. “We just want to represent Dacula well on Friday night and make them proud of us.”